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Article Synopsis: “Selective Sensitization: Consuming a Food Activates a Goal to Consume its Complements”

Journal of Marketing ResearchGirlsEatingMilkAndCookiesPNG

By Young Eun Huh, Joachim Vosgerau and Carey Morewedge

Written by Research Rockstar intern Sarah Stites

Have you ever baked a batch of cookies, only to realize that you were out of milk? Even though you normally don’t crave the beverage, eating cookies suddenly increased the desirability of a refreshing, cold glass of milk.

Researchers call this cross-stimulus sensitization. Historically, it has been explained through such concepts as habituation, whereby a person gets used to one food and seeks a complementary food to provide variety. Yet, according to the hypothesis of marketing researchers Young Eun Huh, Joachim Vosgerau and Carey Morewedge, consumption of a specific food activates a goal to consume its complements. And there are some significant implications for marketing strategy as a result.

In order to test whether goal activation is really the root cause of cross-stimulus sensitization, the researchers conducted a series of experiments. In the first, study participants were asked to indicate the price they would pay for a hamburger. However, some of the subjects were given a glass of soda to drink beforehand. Those who had first drunk soda were willing to pay significantly more than those who had not been offered soda.

The effect of time passage on willingness to pay was also examined. The researchers found that after being shown a piece of pizza on a screen, subjects were willing to spend more for a glass of cola after a five-minute delay than they were immediately after viewing the image. This indicated that goal activation was at play, as the desire to fulfill a goal becomes stronger over time. Conversely, mere semantic associations decrease over time.

To further dissociate the difference between semantic and complementary relationships, the researchers gave participants either plain crackers or those topped with peanut butter or strawberry jelly. After this, participants were allowed to eat however many grape jelly topped crackers they wished. Participants who were first given peanut butter crackers ate the most strawberry jelly crackers afterwards, suggesting that the complementary relation of toppings (peanut butter and jelly) was more important than the semantic relation (two types of jelly).

Through these and other experiments, the researchers concluded that goal activation and perceived complementarity underlie cross-stimulus sensitization. What are the implications?

Menu design is one area that could be affected. The researchers indicated the superiority of the McDonald’s model of the “value meal,” whereby complementary foods—a burger, fries and beverage—are marketed together. Compare this to the classic menu design of categorized drinks, entrees, sides and desserts. According to the research results, the latter design might not stimulate consumer demand to the same level as the former.

Additionally, there is hope for mature products with lackluster sales growth. If consumers are no longer responding to your milk advertisements, wear out can be slowed by focusing advertisements on milk’s complements, such as cookies or cereal.

For market researchers, we see two implications:

  1. When testing a specific product, is testing it in a “silo” or in a combination with its complements more realistic if we are trying to understand consumer behavior?
  2. Can these effects apply outside of food? For example, a car and car insurance would be complements

What do you think? How can these lessons apply to food and non-food product categories?  How might you want to test it?


Sarah Stites

This article was written by Research Rockstar intern Sarah Stites. Sarah is a student at Grove City College, and is a member of the Research Rockstar Scholarship program for college students.

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